Around Ho Chi Minh City

Cu Chi Tunnels - Tay Ninh - Nui Ba Den - One Pillar Pagoda - Can Gio - Buu Long Mountain -Tri An Falls - Vung Tau - Long Hai - Loc An Beach - Ho Tram Beach - Ho Coc Beach - Binh Chau Hot Springs - Cat Tien National Park - Con Dao Islands


The town of Cu Chi is a district of greater HCMC and has a population of about 200,000 (it had about 80,000 residents during the American War). At first glance there is little evidence here to indicate the intense fighting, bombing and destruction that occurred in Cu Chi during the war. To see what went on, you have to dig deeper - underground. The tunnel network of Cu Chi became legen -dary during the 1960s for its role in facilitating Viet Cong (VC) control of a large rural area only 30km to 40km from HCMC. At its heighl the tunnel system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border; in the district of Cu Chi alone there were more than 250km of tunnels. The network, parts of which was several storeys deep, included innumerable trap doors, constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens. The tunnels made possible communication and coordination between the VC-controlled enclaves, isolated from each other by South Vietnamese and American land and air operations. They also allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks wherever the tunnels went -even within the perimeters of the US military base at Đong Du - and to disappear suddenly into hidden trapdoors without a trace. After ground operations against the tunnels claimed large numbers of US casualties and proved ineffective, the Americans resorted to massive firepower, eventually turning Cu Chi's 420 sq km into what the authors of The Tunnels of Cu Chi (Tom Mangold and John Penycate) have called 'the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare'. Cu Chi has become a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese school children and communist party cadres. Two sections from this remark able tunnel network (which are enlarged and upgraded versions of the real thing) are open to the public. One is near the village of Ben Dinh and the other is 15km beyond at Ben Duoc. Most tourists visiting the tunnels end up at Ben Dinh, the favourite of bus tours; those seeking more of a surreal, funhouse-atmosphere should head to Ben Duoc.
The tunnels of Cu Chi were built over a period of 25 years that began sometime in the late 1940s. They were the improvised response 01 a poorly equipped peasant army to its enemy's high-tech ordnance, helicopters, artillery, bombers and chemical weapons. The Viet Minh built the first dugouts and tunnels in the hard, red earth of Cu Chi (ideal for their construction) during the war against the French. The excavations were used mostly for communication between villages and to evade French army sweeps of the area. When the VC's National Liberation Liberation front (NLF) insurgency began in earnest around 1960, the old Viet Minh tunnels were repaired and new extensions were excavated. Within a few years the tunnel system assumed enormous strategic importance, and most of Cu Chi district and the nearby area came under firm VC control. In addition Cu Chi was used as a base for infiltrating intelligence agents and sabotage teams into Saigon. The stun ning attacks in the South Vietnamese capital during the 1968 Tet Offensive were planned and launched from Cu Chi. In early 1963 the Diem government implemented the botched Strategic Hamlets Program, under which fortified encampments, surrounded by many rows of sharp bamboo spikes, were built to house people who had been 'relocated' from communist-controlled areas. The first strategic hamlet was in Ben Cat district, next to Cu Chi. Not only was the program me carried out with incredible incompetence, alienating the peasantry, but the VC launched a major effort to defeat it. The VC were able to tunnel into the hamlets and control them from within. By the end of 1963 the first showpiece hamlet had been overrun. The series of setbacks and defeats suffered by the South Vietnamese forces in the Cu Chi area rendered a complete VC victory by the end of 1965 a distinct possibility. In the early months of that year, the guerrillas boldly held a victory parade in the middle of Cu Chi town. VC strength in and around Cu Chi was one of the reasons the Johnson administration decided to involve US troops in the war. To deal with the threat posed by VC control of an area so near the South Vietnamese capital, one of the USA's first actions was to establish a large base camp in Cu Chi district unknowingly, they built it right on top of an existing tunnel network. It took months for the 25th Division to figure out why they kept getting shot at in their tents at night, The US and Australian troops tried a variety of methods to 'pacify' the area around Cu Chi, which came to be known as the Iron Triangle. They launched large-scale ground operations involving tens of thousands of troops but failed to locate the tunnels. To deny the VC cover and supplies, rice paddies were defoliated, huge swathes of jungle bulldozed, and villages evacuated and razed. The Americans also sprayed chemical defoliants on the area aerially and a few months later ignited the tinder-dry vegetation with gasoline and napalm. But the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air in such a way as to create cloudbursts that extinguished the fires. The VC remained safe and sound in their tunnels. Unable to win this battle with chemicals, the US army began sending men down into the tunnels. These 'tunnel rats', who were often involved in underground fire fights, sustained appallingly high casualty rates. When the Americans began using German shepherd dogs, trained to use their keen sense of smell to locate trapdoors and guerrillas, the VC began washing with American soap, which gave off a scent the canines identified as friendly. Captured US uniforms were put out to confuse the dogs further. Most importantly, the dogs were not able to spot booby traps. So many dogs were killed or maimed that their horrified handlers then refused to send them into the tunnels. The USA declared Cu Chi a free-strike zone: little authorization was needed to shoot at anything in the area, random artillery was fired into the area at night, and pilots were told to drop unused bombs and napalm there before returning to base. But the VC stayed put. Finally, in the late 1960s, American B-52s carpet-bombed the whole area, destroying most of the tunnels along with everything else around. The gesture was militarily useless by then because the USA was already on its way out of the war. The tunnels had served their purpose. The VC guerrillas serving in the tunnels lived in extremely difficult conditions and suffered horrific casualties. Only about 6000 of the 16,000 cadres who fought in the tunnels survived the war. Thousands of civilians in the area were killed. Their tenacity was extraordinary considering the bombings, the pressures of living underground for weeks or months at a time and the deaths of countless friends and comrades. The villages of Cu Chi have since been presented with numerous honorific awards. decorations and citations by the government, and many have been declared 'heroic villages' Since 1975 new hamlets have been established and the population of the area has more than doubled; however, chemical defoliants remain in the soil and water, and crop yields are still poor. The Tunnels of Cu Chi, by Tom Man gold and John Penycate, is a wonderful work documenting the story of the tunnels and the people involved on both sides.
Over the years the VC developed simple but effective techniques to make their tunnels difficult to detect or disable. Wooden trapdoors were camouflaged with earth and branches; some were booby-trapped. Hidden underwater entrances from rivers were constructed. To cook they used 'Dien Bien Phu Kitchens', which exhausted the smoke through vents many metres away from the cooking site. Trapdoors were installed throughout the network to prevent tear gas, smoke or water from moving from one part of the system to another. Some sections were even equipped with electric lighting.
Ben Dinh
This small, renovated section of the tunnel system (admission 70,000d) is near the village of Ben Dinh, 50km from HCMC. In one of the classrooms at the visitors centre, a large map shows the extent of the network; the area shown is in the northwestern corner of greater HCMC. The tunnels are marked in red, VC bases in light grey and the river in light blue (the Saigon River is at the top). Fortified villages held by South Vietnamese and US forces are marked in grey, while blue dots represent the American and South Vietnamese military posts that were supposed to ensure the security of nearby villages. The dark blue area in the centre is the base of the US 25th Infantry Division. Most prearranged tours do not take you to this former base, but it is not off limits and you can arrange a visit if you have your own guide and driver. To the right of the large map are two cross section diagrams of the tunnels. The bottom diagram is a reproduction of one used by General William Westmorland, the commander of US forces in Vietnam (1964-68). For once the Americans seemed to have had their intelligence information right (though the tunnels did not pass under rivers, nor did the guerrillas wear headgear underground). The section of the tunnel system presently open to visitors is a few hundred metres south of the visitors centre. It snakes up and down through various chambers along its 50m length. The tunnels are about 1.2m high and 80cm across, and are unlit. Some travellers find them too claustrophobic for comfort. A knocked-out M-41 tank and a bomb crater are near the exit, which is in a reforested eucalyptus grove. Be warned that this site tends to get crowded, and you can feel like you're on a tourist conveyor belt most days.
Ben Duoc
Many Vietnamese and the odd foreign visitor make it to the Ben Duoc tunnels (admission 70,000d). The tunnels here have been enlarged to ac-commodate tourists and feature a number of sights within the underground chambers themselves. The emphasis here is more on the fun fair rather than the history of the tunnels. Hence visitors can don guerrilla costumes and gear before scraping through the tunnels in order to feel like a 'real' VC soldier. Inside are bunkers, a hospital and a command centre that played a role in the 1968 Tet Offensive, and the set pieces include tables, chairs, beds, lights, and dummies outfitted in guerrilla gear (aside from your fellow tourists, that is). Although it's amusing, it's not exactly the way the real tunnels once looked - which were cramped and largely barren as per those found at Ben Dinh. Perhaps more moving than the underground chambers is the small Ben Duoc temple built in 1993 in memory of the Vietnamese killed at Cu Chi. It's flanked by a nine-story tower with a flower garden in front.

The small Cu Chi War History Museum (Nha Truyen Thong Huyen Cu Chi; admission US$1) is not actually at the tunnel sites but just off the main highway in the central area of the town of Cu Chi. Almost all of the explanations are in Vietnamese. There are a few gruesome photos showing civilians who were severely wounded or killed following American bombing raids, and a list of VC guerrillas killed in the Cu Chi area. Overall, it's rather disappointing and doesn't warrant a visit. Most travellers find HCMC's War Remnants Museum far more edifying.
An organised tour is the easiest way to visit the Cu Chi tunnels and it's not even remotely expensive. Most of the cafes on Đ Pham Ngu Lao in HCMC run combined full-day lours to the Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai Great Temple for around US$5. For something a little more interesting, try the half-day boating trip to the tunnels organised by Delta Adventure Tours . It costs around US$9 per person.
Getting There & Around
Cu Chi district covers a large area, parts of which are as close as 30km to central HCMC. The Cu Chi War History Museum is closest to the city, while the Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc tunnels are about 50km and 70km, respectively, from central HCMC by highway. There's a back road that reduces the distance significantly, though it means driving on bumpy dirt roads.
The buses going to 'Tay Ninh pass though Cu Chi, but getting from the town of Cu Chi to the tunnels by public transport is impossible-it's 15km, so you'll have to hire a motorbike from Tay Ninh (around USSA return)
Hiring a taxi in HCMC and driving out to Cu Chi is not all that expensive, especially if the cost is shared by several people. The easiest way to do this is to stop by one of the budget travel cafes in Pham Ngu Lao and arrange a car, or see if you can flag a taxi in that neighbourhood with a driver who will agree to charge you for driving time only. For details on local taxi companies. A visit to the Cu Chi tunnel complex tan easily be combined with a stop at the head quarters of the Cao Dai sect in Tay Ninh A taxi for an all-day excursion to both should cost about US$45.

This busy border crossing is the fastest way to get between HCMC and Phnom Penh, crossing via Moc Bai. Numerous traveller cafes in the Pham Ngu Lao offer transport between the capitals for around US$8, with most buses departing around 8am. Allow about six hours for the trip, including time spent on border formalities. Cambodian visas are issued at the border, though you'll need a passport-sized photo.